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Provocative, Ironic and Disturbing
Oleksandr Kadnikov is a Ukrainian art photographer who is often described as “an ironic conceptualist” and “an extravagantly provocative photo artist.”
Maryna GUDZEVATA, WU senior editor, Recently met the photographer in person and discovered new facets of his art and his personality.
Welcome to Ukraine Magazine has been rather regularly publishing Oleksandr Kadnikov’s photos, taken in foreign lands and in Ukraine. But it was fairly recently, at the First Kyiv International Biennale of Contemporary Art Arsenale, that I saw the photographer’s talent in a different perspective. It turned out that Oleksandr is much into contemporary art photography.
Incidentally, this Arsenale exhibition proved to be a major art event in Ukraine in 2012, at which many leading and foreign artists exhibited their art. Among the foreign artists represented were Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, Jake and Dinos Chapman. The curator of the exhibition was David Elliott, a well-known cultural historian who has directed some of the most innovative and dynamic museums of modern and contemporary art worldwide.
One of the first things that I discovered about Mr Kadnikov was his modesty. He did not mention any of his one-man shows or exhibitions in Ukraine and abroad in which he had taken part. And among such exhibitions were those that had been held in Cologne, Germany, in 2010, in Bratislava, Slovakia, in 2009. He has been an active participant of several art groups which promoted new ideas in the art of photography.
Mr Kadnikov is forty-five years old; he was born and lives in the city of Simferopol, the capital of the Crimea.
It was practically by chance that he became a photographer. The technical school to which he applied had a department of photography and instead of enrolling at the shoemaking department as he had originally intended, he chose to study photography.
It did not take him too long to realize that it was art photography, not just technical side of it, that attracted him most.
“I wanted to be creative, to study the world through the lens of my camera, to find what others look at but don’t see,” said Mr Kadnikov in a conversation with me.
When he was a student, Kadnikov, together with his fellow student, wanted to organize an exhibition of their photographs which were inspired by surrealism in art, but when the headmaster of the technical school of which Kadnikov and his friend were students, saw the photos he didn’t allow them to be exhibited.
In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was still a constituent part, he addressed himself to exploring social problems which society faced then. In the conservative atmosphere of the Crimea, where the soviet power still held all the key positions, his photography caused a highly negative reaction (in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, the mood was already quite different and social themes in photography were if not welcome but tolerated).
Once, when he was taking photos of beggars, the police interfered and took away his camera. The policemen who tried to prevent him from “conducting anti-soviet activities” (the soviets had always been trying to hide social problems rampant in their society), wrote an indignant letter to the newspaper for which he worked, demanding a repressive and restricting action, but the paper ran a highly critical article instead, accusing the local police of interfering with the freedom of the press and speech. This and similar incidents caused the KGB, the infamous soviet secret police, pay a closer attention to him but he was not arrested — the times of their power and stifling grip on society had passed.
Mr Kadnikov had his first exhibition held in Simferopol in 1988 but soon after the opening it was closed down. It was the local communist party bosses who insisted it be shut down — they labeled it “anti-soviet” and “provocative.”
The social theme has continued to be strong in his art ever since. Some of his works, dealing with social issues, were shown at Arsenale.
Kadnikov finds his participation in the Arsenale exhibition to be the biggest achievement in his creative life. “When I saw the list of participating artists and found my name among them… It was a moment of happiness, you know”.
The photographer does not simply capture scenes from life — he arranges the compositions and stages the scenes, so in a way, his photos are “installations” captured and frozen in photos.
He introduces the figures of people, and uses objects and symbols which are familiar from the soviet times. The people who appear in his photos are often aggressive and it is the photographer’s ironic attitude that help soften the starkness of the situations depicted. The photographer issues a warning — these things have not been consigned to oblivion, they are still with us, and the human rights in this country have not been established and secured once and for all.
“I’m playing with associations, memories, with soviet legacy, and I’m issuing a warning,” says the photographer. “Back in the soviet times, many people wanted to live in a society of freedoms and happiness. Now we sort of have those freedoms but there is no peace in our hearts. The reality of today is a far cry from what we hoped we would have. Many people are nostalgic, they remember only the good things and forget the terrible things. They choose to forget never ending shortages, long lines in the stores, the poverty and joyless existence. In my works, I try to remind people of the soviet realities.”
The soviet legacy is still with us; the soviet ghosts are still wondering around. The remnants of the soviet past can be detected in little and big things of life, they are passed from generation to generation. The soviet spirit lived and still lingers on in education, in “New Year trees” as Christmas trees are still called, in books and films from the past which are still read and watched.
Mr Kadnikov’s photos are portraits of those soviet ghosts which, when you recognize them, hit you like a punch in the head. Many of those who realize, thanks to Kadnikov’s photos, that the creeping sovietism still persists in the heads and in social institutions feel confused. Some of the photos are like scorching flames — they cause pain and make one think.
Mr Kadnikov’s photos look at the life around us in a very specific way — they are full of paradoxes, nonsensical things, funny things, twisted realities and incongruities.
The photographer takes all sorts of other photos too — official meetings, festivals, cultural events, landscapes and views. He loves his Crimea and his photos reflect this love.
I find Mr Kadnikov’s photos to be ironic, philosophical, sad, cheerful, peculiar, enigmatic, annoying, nonsensical, wise and sometimes too complicated to be assessed and appreciated at first glance.
The photographer creates with his photographs absurd worlds which disturb and make you think of profound things such as the sense of life and of love. And you begin to appreciate more such simple but fundamental things as food, sleep and the sense of wellbeing.
The Phantom of the State. 2010.
The Explorer of the North. 2009.
The Nostalgic Sandwich. 2009.
The Moorings of the Spring. 2012.
No name. From the series “Rakes.
Reflexes of the Civil Defense. 2012.
The show and performance Counterpoint staged at a penitentiary in Simferopol, Crimea, by O. Kadnikov and A. Shenetass. The inmates not only watched but took part in the performance.
One Wish. 2009.